Salients of a Broken Mind: The Longest Campaign Comes to an End

(Fair warning–like all “Salients of a Broken Mind” installments, this will be a raw gaze at my innermost self. I write this one from a place of closure, and for once it just ends on a bittersweet rather than bleak note, but consider yourself forewarned!)

Your work will not succeed when you most need it to.

It took me two years to write The Necromancer and the Revenant. That’s about correct if I phrase it the way creators usually do–underselling the true time and effort invested in our own work. You might also say it was three. I wrote the first trio of chapters, in their most larval forms, midway into 2016. The vast majority of the first draft, though, I finished in a few months from September to December 2017. The second and third drafts anchored my life through many of its worst moments right up to June 2019.

The truth is that it took me twenty-seven years to write The Necromancer and the Revenant. Learning to speak, discovering the linguistic and writing talent which have marked me from the earliest age, cultivating that innate talent into genuine skill, and all the stories finished or unfinished I wrote along the way–those were the happy parts of the journey.

Not everyone has to pay a price for these things. Now that I think about it, perhaps that was the first warning sign.

Friend after friend drifting away or revealing that our relationship wasn’t what I thought it was. Losing my temper for the worst reasons and all the damage that caused. Passing up so many opportunities to meet new people, see new places, and try new things, all to pursue my writing–absolutely convinced it was the right path to take. Setback upon setback, disappointment and–time after time–the quiet betrayal of those who encourage you to follow your passions, then ignore whatever you create to express them.

No matter what happened, long before I had the title or the world of Canno or even the character of Gratai Lin–because in truth, I created Canno to hold her story in the first place–I’d started putting everything which happened to me into my stories. That’s natural for every creator; I think I only took it further because I found it so hard to trust others. I searched for lessons in joy and misery alike. No matter how hard I took it at the time, I eventually made sure I gleaned something from whatever happened to me.

A few days ago I told my friends that I distilled my whole being into The Necromancer and the Revenant‘s pages. I’ve never written truer words. By the time I realized this meant that the book’s failure would be tantamount to my complete failure as a human being, it was too late. Or maybe that was just the sunk cost fallacy at work–an insidious creature.

So it was that, almost exactly two years after the worst mental collapse of my life, I prepared to self-publish The Necromancer and the Revenant in June of this year. You might think from this lead-in that I expected meteoric success. Well, obviously I hoped for it, and on some distant level I still do. But I figured at best I might sell fifteen or twenty copies to those close to me, and have a few enthusiastic conversations with some of my closest friends.

Veterans of this blog’s current era may remember the first “Salients” entry. The Necromancer and the Revenant was how I found purpose again after that entry’s events, the guiding star in a life otherwise directionless and stagnating. It’s not that I didn’t understand the risk, only that I’d run out of better options. I underestimated how much I was able to push through based on that principle–whatever the setback, “I’ll work on my book some more” was always an option. It gave me a way to bounce back before I had time to wallow in failure.

Two years had passed since the collapse which drove me to finish the book. Two years in which The Necromancer and the Revenant proved more constant that professional connections, friends, and family until it became everything to me. I told myself this was the most powerful way to close the loop. I’d purge my greatest personal failure by marking its second anniversary with my crowning professional achievement. I didn’t need to make millions of dollars or win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I just needed a few people to tell me, at the critical moment, that I hadn’t wasted those twenty-seven years.

The Necromancer and the Revenant has long since come to focus on the idea that your battles will not be fair ones. You may deserve to win, you may do everything right–but if you don’t have enough power when you do it, you’re just as doomed as someone who never tried at all. History’s littered with the names of brave fools who went right back to where they’d been disgraced, always puffed up and convinced they’d redeem themselves. So few ever realize in advance that it’ll hurt twice as badly losing there twice.

What I’m writing is that I should’ve seen this past summer coming.

The low sales weren’t what ruined me. It was the silence. The awful quiet while I waited for someone, anyone, to tell me that they’d enjoyed my book. I didn’t even need to hear that I’d changed a life–just that someone was drawn to my writing. Just that the work itself was worthy, and my lack of commercial success was only visibility’s harsh law at work.

Silence. Doubt. More silence.

I held the line as best I could, considering. Making all this worse, at this same time I was having the falling out of a lifetime with one of my closest friends and collaborators–someone I’d entrusted with much of my deepest lore, with details and characters and plot threads many of which won’t manifest in my novels for up to a decade. We’d been working on my tabletop system, SpiralBrew, together. Our playtesting sessions, the stories our player characters went through, had been one of the few pure joys left in a life I increasingly sacrificed to perfect The Necromancer and the Revenant.

And this best friend of mine? I’ve since come to realize I quietly fell in love with him.  Of course, he had a fiancee he was very much in love with–I don’t quite remember whether he’ll have married her by now–and I’ve never been the type to try tearing a romance apart even if I’m not pretty sure he was heterosexual. So I wasn’t just in love, but that hypothetical, ideal storybook love: I never needed it reciprocated. Now that I’ve lived it, I have to say it’s even more overrated and tragically stupid than I thought.

On top of all the disappointments from throughout the past few years, fallen-through collaborations and writing opportunities that went nowhere, it was too much. I held on by my bloody finger-stubs until the end of July. I remember the exact breaking point vividly: sitting on the couch waiting for dinner and watching an episode of “Restaurant Impossible” while my mother moved around nearby. Something deep within gave way and I shed a few soundless tears. Broken hearts are quiet things.

I can’t fully explain the conviction that came over me then, or justify my later superstition that it came true. I believed I was about to die. That night I slipped away downstairs, went to bed, and entered a fugue state in which I remained for several weeks. I marked both my Youtube channel and my Facebook account for deletion–this would be less dramatic if not for the enormous amount of creative work stored in both accounts.

That’s all been obliterated now–at least, I hope so. There’s meaning in that, even if I do otherwise wish all of this had gone differently. From my perspective, you see, I had a decision to make. When you’re looking at a big number saying “Friends” and telling you that you have about 200 of them, it’s difficult to analyze whether or not you’re truly alone.

I figured I needed to cut away the facade and look at who was truly in my life, rather than just living their life visibly enough that I could pretend I was part of it. I needed to get away from all those neatly-framed icons and message histories about promised support and friendship, and look at who’d acted on those promises. I know better than anybody that everyone has potential, so potential in itself is meaningless. I soon realized that as far as actions went, that counter was closer to 5–and all of them with their own struggles to face.

And when I most needed any scrap of meaning or structure, my faithful companion’s journey had diverged from mine. For the first time in two years, I couldn’t just say to myself, “The book can always use another line-edit.” I believed then, and still believe now, that while I hope to write better books in the future–it’d be disappointing to peak so soon–The Necromancer and the Revenant is the most perfect possible version of itself.

It turned out that perfect wasn’t good enough. I had no plan for this, no predetermined steps, nothing to distract myself this time.

At the lowest point, I sharpened my wakizashi back to a razor edge. Several times I pressed its point to my belly, testing the resistance, gauging how much force I’d need to reach the right depth–wouldn’t want to get hung up trying to slice through more material than necessary. I know from past experience with self harm that if I decided to do it, I wouldn’t have hesitated. It’s just about overcoming that first twinging aversion to pain. Get angry or desperate enough, grit your teeth, and it becomes easy fast.

When I later expressed this moment to a friend, I came up with a little masterpiece of despair: “You know you’re in a bad place when your biggest concern about committing seppuku without a second is that it’s going to make an awful mess of your parents’ carpeting.” I valued my own existence that little.

The theatrics proved unnecessary. I discovered that it’s possible for a person to die without their body being harmed at all. I’ll maintain until this vessel of mine stops breathing that the person who eventually woke up halfway into August isn’t the same one who embraced the Void at the end of July. My personality has shifted drastically, at least by my own understated standards. Many things I once held true about life have slid away. Codes and procedures I’ve reinforced for years evaporated in an eyeblink.

After all, I’m confessing to all of you how close I came to committing suicide–I wouldn’t risk this if I still planned to try. Whether you believe in souls or not, my own perspective is that it makes no difference. If they do exist, mine died and broke apart–it just couldn’t leave this world while bound to this body. And if souls don’t exist, then the cessation of all conscious thought and physical activity is pretty much the same thing. Either way, the critical moment had arrived.

Here’s the part where I’d love to tell you someone else pulled me out. At the bitterest moment, teetering on the brink of self-orchestrated oblivion, the right person reached out to help.

If you believe that happened, you haven’t been following this blog particularly long. People who live with those kinds of friends don’t write the kinds of stories I do. Oh, I know someone who might’ve, and he did try, but the problem is that he lives in Britain–there was no way for him to change my course when I could quietly tell him not to worry over DMs.

In the end, during the brief lucid periods when I wasn’t consigning my psyche to the abyss, something at my core wasn’t ready to give in. So millimeter by millimeter, I clawed my way back from the brink. I gathered up the pieces of myself for at least the second time. I decided that I might as well use this chance to cut away every empty vestige from the last few years. There was a lengthy window in which I could’ve salvaged those social media accounts, and the writing, videos, and artwork associated with them.

Admittedly, many of those were early efforts, but not all. Even the early material I valued: it showed where I’d started, how far I’d come. I used to think about how I’d point to it one day and say, “See? No one’s particularly good at this when they start out, no shame in needing practice!” I chose to let it all burn. A pyre of my past failures to the light the way into my next incarnation.

Yes, that’s supremely edgy and perhaps difficult to take seriously, but we all know that I love being edgy. I won’t apologize for that any longer; fearing the mere possibility that others might disapprove of my quirks was one of the main reasons I almost gutted myself. I say enough of that is enough.

If you’ve read The Necromancer and the Revenant, you might be thinking, “Aha, so in point of fact your own life’s events have symbolically mirrored those of your work! There was meaning to those experiences after all!” Perhaps so–on a mere conceptual level which ignores all the context underlying those patterns in my book versus the context I’ve just written for you here. I tell you what, give me an astounding power boost and a snarky viper to throw shade at my enemies, and I’ll accept the whole “life imitates art” angle.

The truth is, my story is not Gratai’s. I wanted it to be. Hell, I still want it to be! I hope that, against all the signs I see that it’s already missed the window and is now doomed to obscurity, The Necromancer and the Revenant still becomes successful enough that my fans in the coming years will look at this very paragraph and say “I’m pretty concerned that Cullen wants their story to be the same as Gratai’s.”

Gratai has her own challenges, but she has one thing I assuredly do not: power. Power to change reality as she desires, power in that people know who she is and respect her for it, power to make them see her whether they want to or not. Power to make a place in the world without anyone’s help so she can pursue her passions without being beholden to others.

Some time ago, I wrote something like the following: “I no longer need the pipe-dream of self-sustaining authorial success.” If that sounds arrogant, it is, but it also isn’t. I was trying to convince myself, and the lies we tell ourselves often sound arrogant because we need that excessive confidence to counterbalance our self-loathing. Sometimes that’s enough.

But again, I’m not living the kind of story where it could’ve been enough for me.

The events of the last few months have forced me to admit that I’ll always find my life orders of magnitude harder than it’s supposed to be until I’m able to focus solely on my own work. I can’t lie to myself on that count any longer–that’s been more destructive than any myth foisted on me by others.

I wrote the bit about pipe-dreams in regard to money, but that was a red herring. Money was never the point. I only think about money because I need it to pursue my obsessions. If I had magic like Gratai’s, I’d have no qualms about carving out a grim mansion on a rocky promontory, conjuring food, drink, and electricity from the ether, and shutting out the world to focus on my books.

You see, readers, I’m that theoretical ideal creator. The pure artist who cares for nothing but their craft. The one about whom you see so many industry propaganda pieces: “Hey, just be like this one and you’ll be well rewarded!” And I’m telling you this straight: this is the worst conceivable world to be that person. You’re not rewarded, you’re exploited. It’s not like the artistic purity in itself means anything.

I don’t think I’m better than those who can derive more of the satisfaction they need from a good paycheck–on the contrary, I envy them more than anyone else in the universe. I often feel I’m selfish for my obsessive need to focus on my own writing–why can’t I put the same weight on other’s words? Who the hell am I to think everyone ought to read my stories when I’ve grown so apathetic about the stories of others, stories I’m currently receiving far more pay to engage with?

All this would be so much easier if I could manage to put higher psychological value on money. But I can’t. I could make myself excited to die–which, yes, was a horribly stupid use of the ability to recondition my own emotional responses–but not excited about dollar signs just for the sake of dollar signs.

Money only means something to me as far as it can buy experiences, and at this point the other experiences it buys me aren’t equal to constantly putting my work aside to invest energy in the work of others. To be frank, the vast majority of the writing I offer feedback on just isn’t much good. There’s no malice in that statement, but it’s impossible to muster enthusiasm when I offer regurgitated feedback about regurgitated flaws day after day. I can’t help but feel that if I’m not affecting a change, couldn’t I at least do it through words that matter to me personally?

The same mental energy that squeezes out a page or two of feedback for someone else can add a dozen pages, or twenty on a good day, to my own material. That’s not to say I’m miserable about the poor exchange rates. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but I’m at peace with that–however, that inner peace won’t pay my bills, and sooner or later I’ll fall too far behind.

Sooner or later I’ll lose my stories. That saddens me, because writing those stories makes me happy and I want to keep writing them.

I’m still insecure, riddled by doubts–impostor syndrome never the least among them–and more exhausted since July than I’ve ever been. 2019 was supposed to be my comeback year. Instead it’s turned out to be worse than 2017. And in spite of that, for a good while, I was writing more between The Necromancer and the Revenant, my work for ISA, my sessions and worldbuilding as a tabletop DM, and here on this blog than I have in years. I have no points left to prove to myself.

Despite everything, I’ve seized some tiny measure of happiness. I’ll hold onto it, I think. I’m not perfectly stable, but I’ve made my decision between life and death.

For the first time in five years, I’m free of suicidal ideation. I find myself wanting to live. I want to stick around and see what the next dawn brings. More than that, I want to succeed–believe it or not, I’d talked myself into a death cult mentality about my own writing. I was convinced that I was too invisible, too small, ever to make it. Obviously I tried not to let that come through here on the blog; I didn’t want to risk someone figuring out that I was suicidal and having the opportunity to stop me.

Perhaps my past self will still prove correct; the evidence certainly suggests that I’m never going to get my big break, never going to spread my stories to everyone. I won’t say it doesn’t hurt–but you see, I can admit to you now that it hurts. It hurts, in fact, like a sword through the belly. Yet here, now, I find I can bear it at last.

I’m still fatigued and burned out, there’s no getting around that. Aside from this very post, I’ve struggled more than ever before to write, sketch, even play games with my closest friends. Some of you have likely noticed that I didn’t follow through on most of my writing plans for August–turns out it takes a while to come back from the crevice I’d plowed myself into. I don’t know where I’m headed in the future. But as grim as everything has been, I’m at peace for the first time in years.

That’ll do for the moment.

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